Every sports fan appreciates a good underdog victory.
Whether it’s Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990, Leicester somehow finding a way to win the 2015/16 Premier League, or the “Miracle on Ice,” when the United States hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in 1980, all of these major underdog wins are etched into the history books forever.
Although the sport of mixed martial arts is still relatively new (it wasn’t even around when two of those underdog victories occurred), we’ve still seen plenty of major upsets over the years, particularly in UFC title fights.
Today, we’re going to look back at five of the biggest and most shocking upsets in UFC title fight history.
Most Shocking Upsets in UFC Title Fight History
#5 – Holly Holm def. Ronda Rousey
It wasn’t all that long ago when many fans considered Ronda Rousey to be unstoppable.
Rousey was on top of the mixed martial arts world after winning all 12 of her professional fights. The former Olympian wasn’t just beating her opponents, she was badly embarrassing them in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Rousey would use her skills as a judoka to initiate strong takedowns and submit her opponent with ease. Her ability as a grappler was proven time and time again as she managed to finish all 12 of her professional fights inside the distance. In her four title defenses before facing Holm, Rousey had stopped Sara McMann, Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano, and Bethe Correia all in 66 seconds or less.
Even today, there’s no one finishing people in quite the same way that Rousey was through 2013-2015.
So by the time Holm emerged as the top title contender, the bookmakers and public had really given up on the idea that anyone could beat her.
But unlike the majority of Rousey’s opponents, Holm possessed a skill set that could really trouble the champion. Holm was a multiple-time world champion in boxing and had a two-inch reach advantage against Rousey. She could move well enough laterally to evade Rousey’s forward blitzes and she could crack Rousey with long, accurate punches and kicks.
Holm could be found at odds of +825 at popular bookmakers in the days before UFC 193. From those odds, Holm’s implied probability of winning was 10.8 percent and a simple $50 bet on Holm to win would return $412 profit if successful.
But the world had no idea what was coming.
Holm straight-up dominated Rousey from start to finish before crushing her with a thunderous head kick in round two to seal the deal.
In some ways, Holm’s win really shouldn’t be considered as a monumental upset.
Ronda Rousey was important. She was integral to the beginning of women’s mixed martial arts becoming a reality in the UFC and she helped influence and inspire many young females who are fighting today.
But when you look back on it all, she wasn’t a great mixed martial artist.
Rousey was an extremely one-dimensional fighter. Her gameplan largely revolved around closing the distance, tying up her opponent and then hip-tossing them to the mat where she could proceed to submit them with a swift armbar.
However, if we’re looking at those underdog defeats that really changed the landscape of the UFC and had an impact that was felt around the world, Holm’s knockout win against Rousey is certainly a top-five upset in the history of the UFC.
#4 – Rose Namajunas def. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
When Rose Namajunas was announced as next in line to challenge Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the UFC Women’s Strawweight Championship in November 2017, the overwhelming majority of fans dismissed Namajunas’ chances and considered her to be just another hopeless challenger.
Very few people believed that Namajunas was ready to take on the fighter who was regarded as not just the best female mixed martial artist in the sport at the time but was also featured in the UFC’s top pound-for-pound athletes.
What happened at UFC 217 left everyone speechless and the sound of Daniel Cormier screaming “Thug Rose! Thug Rose! Thug Rose!” stick with many to this day.
Jedrzejczyk, the champion, entered the fight with Namajunas undefeated after 14 professional fights. She had defeated almost every top contender in the women’s 115-pound division, including Jessica Andrade, Claudia Gadelha, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and Carla Esparza.
Her striking seemed unparalleled for the division and there was no genuine clear-cut weakness in her game. Her grappling had been tested by Andrade and Gadelha and her striking was tested by Kowalkiewicz.
So not many fans had Namajunas winning this fight, especially since she was entering the bout after being defeated by Kowalkiewicz just two fights prior. Sure, Namajunas was stepping in after submitting Michelle Waterson, but Waterson wasn’t on the same level as the aforementioned contenders and was well behind the skill level of Jedrzejczyk.
How was Namajunas going to be able to hang with the striking of the champion if she couldn’t even find a way to defeat Kowalkiewicz, the challenger that Jedrzjeczyk had already defeated? If she was to win, many thought it would be via rear-naked choke or another type of submission against the champion, but that was a long shot.
By the time that the event started, Namajunas was a +568 underdog at well-known bookmakers. The implied probability for Namajunas to win was just 15 percent.
Yet, it took her only three minutes to hand Jedrezcjyk her first-ever career defeat.
Namajunas stood toe-to-toe with the champion and used her typically aggressive style to back the champion toward the cage. Namajunas crashed a hard right hand into the head of Jedrejczyk that ended up with the champion scrambling around on the mat, but she appeared to be fine not long afterward. It didn’t take long for the challenger to land yet another heavy shot, though, and this time Namajunas followed it up with brutal ground and pound to claim the title.
Everyone was sleeping on Rose Namajunas that night, and that’s sure to be something that never happens again.
#3 – Michael Bisping def. Luke Rockhold
When Michael Bisping stepped in to replace Chris Weidman in a UFC Light Heavyweight Championship bout against Luke Rockhold with only two weeks notice, many fans laughed off Bisping’s chances of knocking Rockhold from the top spot.
Rockhold had already defeated Bisping once before. At UFC Fight Night 155 in November 2014, Rockhold managed to submit Bisping with a guillotine choke in round two.
There’s also the fact that Bisping wasn’t the next-best contender in the light heavyweight division at the time, too. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza was Dana White’s preference to fill-in for Weidman, but he was injured and unable to take the title fight.
The odds seemed to be stacked against Michael Bisping.
Rockhold had endured what was close to a full, dedicated training camp in preparation for a tough fight with Weidman. Bisping, on the other hand, had been filming his part in “XXX: Return of Xander Cage” up until he got the call.
The champion had recently managed to defeat two extremely tough light heavyweight contenders in Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida, and his only defeat was to Vitor Belfort back in 2013.
Even if Bisping had six months of preparation leading up to the fight, not many would have considered him much of a chance to take the middleweight title. After all, he’d tried once before.
That’s why what unfolded at UFC 199 should be considered as one of the most shocking upsets in UFC history.
Rockhold entered the fight with plenty of confidence. He controlled the center of the Octagon well and kept stabbing the body of Bisping with punches and kicks. Rockhold seemed to be doing what he does best. But all it took was one well-timed left hand from the challenger for Rockhold to start stumbling all over the place.
Bisping, like many fans, knew that Rockhold leaves his chin exposed when fighting at close range or after attempting a kick. As his hands lowered, Bisping cracked him with a hard shot and then followed up with another. Rockhold was floored and Bisping ended with several heavy strikes to force the referee to step in and end the fight.
At UFC 199, Bisping did the unthinkable. He won the UFC Middleweight Championship despite entering the fight as a +590 underdog.
#2 – TJ Dillashaw def. Renan Barao
When everything in the lead-up to UFC 173 went sideways, we should have started to expect the unexpected during the event, as well.
Renan Barao vs. TJ Dillashaw was never supposed to headline UFC 173. At first, Chris Weidman was scheduled to defend his title against Vitor Belfort. However, a different approach to the way testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) was handled by the Nevada State Athletic Commission resulted in Belfort being unable to compete on the night. Lyoto Machida later stepped in and replaced Belfort. But then it wasn’t long before Weidman suffered an injury and withdrew from the main event, as well.
With the UFC needing a main event for the evening, the promotion hoped to schedule a fight between bantamweight champion Renan Barao and highly-rated contender, Raphael Assuncao. But with Assuncao injured, the UFC instead turned to TJ Dillashaw as the new title challenger.
Unlike Bisping in the example above, Dillashaw was already in training camp when he received the news. He was scheduled to face Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 173, meaning that he was more than happy to accept the massive bump up in competition (and pay) by taking the title fight against Barao.
But there’s an almost immeasurable difference between preparing for Mizugaki and Barao.
At the time, Barao was considered one of the pound-for-pound best in the sport. He was on a 32-fight winning streak dating back to 2005. Although Dillashaw was the #4 ranked challenger in the UFC bantamweight division, his shot at Barao seemed sudden.
Bookmakers had Dillashaw at odds of +765 and the odds were still widening all the way up until the fight commenced.
Once the fight started, however, everyone with money on Barao’s side started to become a little nervous.
Dillashaw looked outstanding from the very beginning. He dropped Barao in the first round and kept up the pace and pressure through all moments of the fight before eventually finishing him in the fifth. It wasn’t just a “fluke” win for the challenger, it was complete and utter domination – the type of performance that no one was expecting.
TJ Dillashaw’s win over Renan Barao will forever be remembered as one of the greatest upsets in UFC history.
#1 – Matt Serra def. Georges St-Pierre
Matt Serra’s knockout win against Georges St-Pierre is undoubtedly the most shocking upset in the history of the UFC.
Whereas (in hindsight), it was clear that Holly Holm had major advantages against Ronda Rousey and Rose Namajunas is a far more formidable striker than we had imagined her to be, Serra’s title-winning effort against St-Pierre was nothing else but a genuinely stunning moment and one that should never have really happened.
Serra wasn’t built like your typical welterweight fighter. Weighing in at 170 pounds and standing at a remarkably small 5-foot-6-inches, you wouldn’t be surprised to see someone of his stature fighting at much lower weight classes such as bantamweight (135-pounds).
At the time, Georges St-Pierre was viewed as unbeatable and many considered him to be the best mixed martial artist in the world. He was 13-1 when he faced Serra and was coming off wins over Matt Hughes, BJ Penn, and Sean Sherk.
While “GSP” had just taken the belt from Hughes, Serra was competing on Season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter. The winner of that season would emerge as an immediate title challenger and go on to face St-Pierre in their next bout.
Anyone picking Serra at the time would be considered as absolutely crazy. Serra was an +850 underdog and there seemed to be very little value in betting on him at those extreme odds.
Serra was a jiu-jitsu specialist and that’s about the only place where his strengths and advantages would lie against St-Pierre.
When it comes to all other aspects of mixed martial arts, St-Pierre was supposed to have him covered. Striking, wrestling, strength, timing, power, and speed, St-Pierre had it all, but at UFC 69 none of it mattered.
Serra came out and began targeting the body of St-Pierre with strikes. A smart gameplan, of course, considering he was four inches smaller than the champion. So when he came upstairs with some wild, unexpected bombs, St-Pierre wasn’t ready for those and found himself stumbling all over the cage. Serra jumped at the opportunity to finish the champion and continued throwing wild haymakers. Again, another one landed and St-Pierre was on skates. All it took was some ground and pound for Serra’s hand to be raised.
By looking back at the other upsets listed here, they’re not shocking in the sense that they could happen (and in some cases, did happen) again. When Serra rematched GSP one year later, he was stopped by the Canadian great and his career would never reach the same heights.
Matt Serra should never have defeated Georges St-Pierre and that’s why it ranks as the greatest upset of UFC history.